I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason
"What began as a creative and emotional outlet has become more than a career. It’s part of my identity, and it’s how I can connect with other people who might have felt the way I have at some point. I like to think that’s why people purchase my work — they see a part of themselves in my paintings. They hang my art on their wall, and it grows with them."

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Ambre AmariI Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

Renaissance woman Sarah Mason is a musician, songwriter, and painter with an innate gift for blending creativity with purpose. And while her ability to toggle between mediums might seem effortless, Sarah is very candid about her journey of self-discovery and vulnerability and how it has shaped her as an artist.

Sarah, you are known for both your introspective abstract art and your multiple musical talents. When did you begin to develop and pursue these individual talents?

Art first manifested itself in music for me. As a kid, I was fascinated by my neighbor who played the piano beautifully. We had a piano in our home, and I begged my mom for lessons at age five. She wanted me to wait until I was seven which is the typical age to begin classical training, but I was impatient and began to figure things out by ear. By the time I officially enrolled in lessons, I’d already taught myself Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, a song that I heard my neighbor play.

I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

Early on, in my music education, I realized that I did have a natural gift for playing, but I was always shy to perform. I remember one important recital when I turned to the audience and preemptively announced, “I might mess up, so don’t laugh.” I knew that I wanted to study music in college, but I didn’t really have a plan. I ended up gaining so much confidence in my ability to teach. I saw gaps in how I had been trained classically but actually learned intuitively and was able to apply that to helping my students later — teaching them to identify chords and think about music in a big picture way rather than focusing on details.

I didn’t start out with the same sense of confidence when it came to visual art. To me, I couldn’t be an artist because I couldn’t draw. But I was surrounded by beauty in nature. Between the dry flatlands, cowboys, and oil rigs of Gillette, Wyoming where I grew up and the wildflower-filled mountains of Jackson Hole where I spent summers with my grandparents, I remember viewing the world aesthetically. Those memories that I stuffed away are definitely present in my art today.

Where would you say this creative curiosity came from at such an early age?I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

I’m adopted, and on some level I always felt a little like I didn’t fit into my family. They were all medical professionals, and I was different. When I began to be curious about my birth family, I was excited to uncover these discoveries about my biological parents that helped me understand myself. My biological father was a heavy metal musician and, while on tour, met my mother who was a baker and gardener. So creativity is definitely in my DNA. At times, when I was young, I wondered what it would be like to grow up in that environment — where I might feel a greater sense of belonging, but I also realize that I had opportunities that fostered my talents and loving parents who invested in helping me pursue my interests. I think the combination of my childhood sense of searching and that type of support helped me develop into the artist, person, and mother I am now.

That introspection and sense of belonging seem to influence your work and the way you engage with the community. How do you feel your creativity and personal experiences allow you to make an impact locally?

I am involved in the Sunday night community services at Independent Presbyterian Church. I lead the music for their program called The Table. David Seamon is the pastor there and has put together this progressive service that feels modern, inclusive, and community-driven. We plan to write original music to use and record an album. Regardless of what you believe, it’s a really positive experience that I hope will resonate with anyone who is looking for a place to belong and feel inspired.I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

I’m also excited to be a part of ArtBlink this weekend at UAB’s Kirklin Clinic. I am exhibiting two paintings that are for sale and will be live painting for the duration of the gala. At the end of the night, that work will be auctioned off to the highest bidder, and the proceeds will benefit top-priority projects in cancer research and care through the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Fund for Excellence. It’s a privilege to be a part of this event and also really fun! There’s definitely a challenge to begin a painting from scratch and work in front of everyone with the goal of creating something in that small window of time. And in a ball gown!

You began your career in music but have now also carved out a niche for yourself as a visual artist. What was the catalyst for this new venture? What have you learned?

Towards the end of my marriage, I was concerned about supporting myself and looking for a way to monetize my creativity. Painting had been therapeutic for me. All of my feelings could be transported from my mind onto a canvas. That act of being alone in my studio and getting all of my inner struggles out felt cathartic, and slowly I began to show my work to others. When I got beyond that fear of criticism, I wanted to participate. I started to show my work at the Downtown Art Crawl, and people bought my paintings! Through word of mouth, other people began to reach out to me — commissioning work, asking me to participate in shows, and it built my confidence. I started to market myself and take part in art fairs like Magic City Art Connection and even out-of-state fairs. I stopped taking things personally and learned that there is a cycle in the life of an artist. I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

The past four years that I’ve pursued visual art have been so rewarding. What began as a creative and emotional outlet has become more than a career. It’s part of my identity, and it’s how I can connect with other people who might have felt the way I have at some point. I like to think that’s why people purchase my work — they see a part of themselves in my paintings. They hang my art on their wall, and it grows with them. 

What challenges have you encountered? What motivates you to push past them?

When I first started painting, I was very self-critical. I was always nervous to show my work because I was afraid people wouldn’t like it. I felt that way about songwriting too. I play weddings and local gigs all the time, and it’s fun to cover those songs that everyone loves to sing along to. I’m not afraid to be vulnerable in general, but no one wants to feel criticized and putting your personal work out there with that possibility on a consistent basis is hard. What I create is the essence of who I am, all parts of who I am — not just the sweet, happy Sarah. Vulnerability, to me, is revealing the darker parts of myself and wanting that to be accepted and beautiful too. I think as an artist and musician, you have to understand that some people just aren’t going to like your work. But that drive to create is still there. 

My favorite artists are the ones who continue to put themselves out there, try new things, experiment, and persevere. I love the American painter Helen Frankenthaler, and she has a quote that has become my mantra: “There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason

What is inspiring your work at this particular moment in time? And how is that guiding your next steps?  

Inspiration comes and goes and therefore so does progression. I recently was in a holding pattern with my art where I didn’t feel inspired. I was waiting for this magical moment to just happen. I gave myself some time and cleared out some of the personal things I was working through, and once I made that space, it hit me. I knew my direction — the mood, colors, message. You have to wait for that sometimes, and it’s nerve-wracking. I have moments where I think I’m like, “That’s it. I’m never going to create anything good again. This is the year I stop painting. No one is ever going to buy anything else I make.” That’s my fear talking. But what I’ve learned so far in my career is that no one ever boos you off the stage or tells you that your art sucks. I think people, at our core, want to root for each other. We just let our own fears get in the way of saying it to each other or hearing it for ourselves.

I’ve been working on a new series feels fresh and grounding at the same time. It’s about emptiness — not in a sad way but in a hopeful way, like a new beginning. I have learned to find the beauty in solitude and creating space and openness in my work and for myself. Rethinking what the future holds and feeling joy in the potential is what I hope to translate visually in my new body of work.

In this new decade, I’m focused on being intentional in my art career. I have inspiration, the motivation to be prolific, and have refined my vision and process. Moving forward, I want to choose the right opportunities and venues — in Birmingham and regionally. Honing my craft and focusing on gallery representation are my priorities this year.

I Create Birmingham: Sarah Mason
Photo by: Ambre Amari